Topic: Education and Child Policy

Survey Says: Public Wants to Know the Total Per Pupil Cost of Public Schooling

A new public opinion survey commssioned in Rhode Island by the Friedman Foundation reveals that people want to know the honest-to-goodness total per-pupil cost of public schooling.

Unfortunately, the full cost is regularly omitted from state education department websites, as revealed in a recent Cato study by Jason Bedrick. What’s more, the full figure is seldom reported by the media. Instead, newspapers and local TV news outfits usually report just a portion of the cost that excludes things like construction spending, interest on debt, and pensions. Education officials obviously have an incentive to make their operations look as frugal as possible, so it’s no surprise that they would offer reporters these partial spending figures (known as “operating” or “current” spending).

Why Such a Harsh Review for a Book I Liked?

I’ve had some feedback on my review of Amanda Ripley’s book The Smartest Kids in the World, and How they Got that Way. A key question: Dude, why so harsh?

I did spill less ink than I could have discussing the book’s good qualities. I find disagreement more interesting than agreement in book reviews, though, so when pressed for time in writing one I tend to give the latter short shrift. For the record, my list of its strong points was not exhaustive. For instance, Ripley is entirely right that children must be taught that learning new things can be challenging, requires effort, and that failures are an integral part of the process. She is right that teacher acumen and subject-area expertise are vitally important. She is right that when both school and home place a high value on learning, children learn more.

But this is not new information. There is an “effective schools” research dating back to the 1970s that has repeatedly found the same things. The real promise of Smartest Kids in the World was in its subtitle: and How they Got that Way. And that is where we encounter the book’s fundamental flaw. Ripley states at the outset that she is fascinated by differential educational outcomes across countries, but isn’t interested in the role that policy might play in them. True to form, the book ignores an enormous swath of research conducted in that area over the past generation.

Equal Protection Nonsense: Women at West Point Edition

On NPR’s Morning Edition today you’ll find the story “West Point Women: A Natural Pattern or a Camouflage Ceiling?” Reporter Larry Abramson leaves us with the impression that, in the words of Col. Ellen Haring (class of ’84), “women are being excluded from a taxpayer-funded educational opportunity”—or, as Abramson puts it:

The Army says it wants more women in the officer corps. The question is whether more will join an organization where their [sic] are still perceived limits on their numbers.

Col. Haring has a point, or would have one if the aim of West Point were simply to afford young men and women an “educational opportunity.” But the American people, through their representatives, presumably had a more precise goal in mind when they created West Point in the first place. National defense is a quintessential public good, defined as economists do, so we don’t need to argue about whether the government should be in that business. To be sure, the purpose of an army officer corps, pursuant to that goal, may change as technology changes. But for the present and the foreseeable future, there are certain limits on the composition of the corps that are set by its very function. By virtue of that function, the Army, at least at the officer level, never has been and, one hopes, never will be a come-one-come-all equal opportunity employer. The American people would be ill-served were that to happen.

Book Review: Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World, and How They Got that Way

Update: I respond to feedback on this review from readers wondering why I was so harsh on a book I liked.

In the author’s note to Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley writes: “I didn’t care deeply about charter schools, vouchers, tenure, or other policy hang-ups…. So, I thought, I’ll just slip out the back door and go investigate this other mystery for a while.” That other mystery was the apparent ability of some countries to educate their children unusually well.

Ripley’s note captures both the book’s strengths and its weaknesses. She is a talented writer with a sense of adventure, and her prose is a pleasure to read. By setting aside the leading education policy questions of our time, she is able to focus on telling the personal stories of children from very different parts of the world, and there is much to be learned from them.

But there is a cost to ignoring virtually all of the evidence on how education policy affects educational outcomes: you’re much less likely to find the needle in the haystack if you decide not to look at the hay. When Ripley concludes that the effect of policy is marginal, the reader can only wonder: how would she know, when she didn’t study the evidence?

When “Zero Tolerance” Means Zero Logic

Schools work very hard to curb drunk driving, so when a sober student offers to drive an inebriated friend home from a party rather than let her attempt to drive home herself, no doubt any school would hold her up as worthy of emulation, right? Wrong, sadly, at least at North Andover High School in Massachusetts:

Two weeks ago, Erin [Cox] received a call from a friend at a party who was too drunk to drive. Erin drove to Boxford after work to pick up her friend. Moments after she arrived, the cops arrived too and busted several kids for underage possession of alcohol.

A North Andover High School honor student, Erin was cleared by police, who agreed she had not been drinking and was not in possession of alcohol. But Andover High told Erin she was in violation of the district’s zero tolerance policy against alcohol and drug use. In the middle of her senior year, Erin was demoted from captain of the volleyball team and told she would be suspended from playing for five games.

One of the central purposes of education is to teach students to consider the consequences of their actions. In this sense, Cox and her friend demonstrated greater wisdom than school officials. While the students clearly considered the potentially lethal consequences of attempting to drive drunk, school officials apparently haven’t considered how their “zero tolerance” policy might discourage sobers students from aiding inebriated colleagues in the future. As Alexander Abad-Santos notes at the Atlantic, “Cox did not break any laws; she did not drink, did not party — yet was still punished by the school. By reprimanding Cox, North Andover High is likely sending out a confusing and contradictory message to teens about drinking, designated drivers, and asking for help.” The Cox family lawyer agrees:

More on Racial Preferences at UT-Austin

At the end of its last term in June, the Supreme Court announced its decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. In that case, Abigail Fisher challenged the University of Texas’s use of racial preferences in its admissions policy as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. When Fisher applied to UT-Austin, the school accepted the top 10 percent of students from all in-state high schools (since lowered to 8 percent), then fills its remaining spots by considering a mix of factors, including a preference for individuals of some (but not all) racial minorities.

When the case originally came to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the court granted wide deference to UT-Austin and its claim that the racial preferences were justified by what the Supreme Court held — in a 2003 case out of the University of Michigan called Grutter v. Bollinger — to be a compelling government interest: educational diversity. The Supreme Court took Fisher’s appeal, and Cato filed an amicus brief supporting her, arguing that the policy didn’t pass strict scrutiny because the university failed to establish (and the lower court failed to require) the “strong basis in evidence” necessary to justify race-conscious measures and to enable a reviewing court to apply any meaningful level of review.

In a 7-1 opinion, the Court agreed, holding that the Fifth Circuit had not correctly applied strict scrutiny when it deferred to the university as to whether its race-conscious measures were necessary and narrowly tailored. While the Court didn’t reconsider Grutter or the continuing validity of “educational diversity” as a compelling state interest, it did remand the case to the Fifth Circuit with instructions to apply actual strict scrutiny to the university’s use of racial classifications.

Back before the Fifth Circuit, Cato has once again filed a brief supporting Fisher. We argue that the strong-basis-in-evidence requirement is necessary for several reasons: to enable courts to independently review the use of race, to smoke out illegitimate and arbitrary uses of race, to enable the proper tailoring of valid uses of race, to limit racial stigma, and to provide greater transparency and accountability. These reasons are all especially important in the context of diversity in education.

We then point out how UT-Austin has failed to meet its factual burden. It hasn’t established a factual basis to explain its conception of diversity (What will the use of race provide?); the necessity of its racial classifications (Why are there no race-neutral means available?); nor the reasoning behind the extent of its preferences (Why do only some racial classes receive preferences?). Because UT-Austin has failed so miserably to meet its factual burden, it’s clear that its admissions program is precisely what the strong-basis-in-evidence requirement is meant to eliminate: an arbitrary and amorphous use of racial classifications and a violation of the constitutional guarantee that every one of us, student or not, be treated as an individual with full legal equality.

The Fifth Circuit will hear argument in Fisher later this fall.

Court: Anxiety About Getting Fired Can Be ADA Disability

In 2008 Congress passed something called the ADA Amendments Act, which reversed various Supreme Court decisions and expanded other rules and definitions so as to enable many more persons to claim status as disabled for purposes of filing discrimination lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I predicted the ADAAA would lead to bad consequences, but even I didn’t foresee what happened in this South Dakota federal case, as told by employment blogger Eric B. Meyer. The plaintiff is a teacher who had been given a poor evaluation and been put on a “performance improvement” plan.

It was right around this time that the teacher met with a physician’s assistant, who diagnosed the teacher with “anxiety and depression, likely stemming from her concerns about possibly getting fired.” 

So, at the teacher’s request, the physician’s assistant wrote a letter to the school seeking a laundry list of accommodations, including:

  • restructuring her job to include only essential functions if stressful situations continue to negatively impact her
  • encouraging her to walk away from stressful confrontations with supervisors; and
  • providing coverage if she becomes overwhelmed with stress from the work environment and needs to leave

The school responded to the full list of accommodation requests, agreeing to provide some, rejecting some, and requesting clarification as to others.